Sunday, October 25, 2009

Racism sends blues to the back of the bus

Jazz master Wynton Marsalis recently told CNN that blues has always been a marginalized form of music because of racism. “It came from who we didn't like. That's what it was -- it wasn't that we couldn't see it. It was who it came from, we did not like them.” He explained that blues music is in country, in jazz, in rock and roll but when its straight up blues, its been institutionally exploited for profit or flat out rejected by white recording companies and is therefore now rejected by the African American community as well.

Case in point... last night, I went to a Discovery Music series blues concert at the local Attucks Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia and was surprised when the MC told the roughly 40 people in the mostly empty theatre, “I’m glad to see so many more people coming out for events than we had last year.” It made me sad to see the historic black theatre so empty for a young musician, John Bigham (The soul of John Black), who mixes blues, soul, R&B and rap and who’s played with Dr. Dré, Eminem, Fishbone, Miles Davis, Everlast and Nikka Costa. Why were the few people in attendance 60 year old white men with pony tails and their wives? There were maybe 5 African Americans in the theatre.

It reminded me of the day I watched a blues concert in Norfolk and overheard a group of white men from the local Natchel Blues Network loudly celebrating having pushed “that black bitch” out of elected office in their organization and “who did she think she was anyway, thinking she could tell me anything about the blues?” Yup, a black blues singer worthy of membership in Safire, the Uppity Blues Woman for sure. I wrote a letter of complaint and cancelled my membership in the organization the next day.

Since then I've concluded that blues here in southeast Virginia is controlled by those "good old boys". This year’s Virginia’s Blues at the Beach (sponsored by the Natchel Blues Network) listed 15 featured artists – 13 of them were white and all but one were male (no wonder they all sounded homogenously the same). Similarly, all the performers at the organization's Hampton Acoustic Blues Revival this year were white (again with one token female). Meanwhile the organization’s current favorite son is an African American artist whose new album “Wall Street Blues” features heavily produced, suburbanized (sanitized and safe) blues that fuses adult contemporary, Calypso, beach music, rockabilly and just enough boogie woogie to not be threatening or edgy.

Meanwhile, talented local African American blues artists like the Blues Empacts, and those with female performers like Jackie Scott and the Homewreckers, the MSG Acoustic Blues Trio, and the Black White Blues Bands, are left struggling for the same attention given to performers who look more like the promoters do.

I'd say Wynton described it perfectly, at least in southeast Virginia. Maybe its different elsewhere.

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